The Leper's Speech

In the stage version of the Gospel of Luke, the costume department is kept busy with quick changes for the two character actors who appear at various times for all of Jesus’ miraculous healings.

An icon of the healing of the ten lepers

An icon of the healing of the ten lepers

There’s the man with an unclean spirit, who can’t be played by the same person who plays Simon’s mother-in-law, because there is no time for a costume change in between these two healings.  The same goes for the leper (from Chapter Five) and the paralytic who is let down from the roof, in a cleverly staged scene that uses sophisticated rigging.  The withered-hand glove from the prop department is one-size-fits-all, so can be worn by any actor.  And no one at all has to play the Centurion’s servant, because he never actually appears on stage.  A long wig is needed for the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair.  Real pigs are not used in the scene when the demon is driven out of a man from Gerasene, and sent into a herd of swine, who then rush headlong down a hill and into the lake to be drowned.  These are only cardboard cutouts.

On any given night one of the cast members’ children can play the girl whom Jesus raises from the dead.  It might be the child of the same person playing the woman who suffers from hemorrhages.  With a costume change that same child can play the boy who has seizures and foams at the mouth, as long as the child is good at blowing bubbles.  A few scenes go by with no healings, until we get to the woman who was crippled for eighteen years (who gets an artificial hunch and a rustic cane), and then a man with dropsy (who traditionally just keeps dropping everything that’s placed into his hands).  With the right makeup, wig, and costume changes, you only need two people to play all these different roles up until this point, not counting the children.

But eventually, after the very moving scene with Lazarus and the rich man, Dives, in which poor old Lazarus is taken up to heaven (using the same rigging in reverse that was used earlier to drop the man down through the roof), and the self-satisfied Dives is being tortured in hell… eventually we arrive at the scene when Jesus heals the ten lepers.  And for a few brief moments a lot more actors are needed on stage.

If, by good fortune,  a production of Matthew’s Gospel is under way nearby that requires five wise virgins and five foolish virgins all on stage at once, this is helpful, because those ten virgins don’t appear until quite late in the Third Act of Matthew.  So, in cities where the two productions are running at the same time, and where proximity of the theatres allows it, often the same ten actors will play the ten lepers in Luke’s Gospel who will also play the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s an efficient use of actors, all on union scale.

One of those ten actors, however, will always stand out from the rest.  You see, all ten of the lepers make their plea to Jesus together as a group, keeping their distance as they call out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  And all ten will turn together to exit Stage Right, when he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, and they see that they have been healed.  They will head out, singing swelling songs of celebration as they go, whooping and cheering, and giving each other high-fives.  But the tenth leper, when he hits his mark, just before disappearing into the wings with the others, will turn on his heel, run back to Center Stage, and cast himself down at the feet of Jesus, delivering an almost-out-of-control ecstatic outburst of thanksgiving that erupts as much from his heart as from his mouth as he praises Jesus’ Name and shouts “Hallelujah!”

It was an unnamed actor, playing the part of the tenth leper for the first time, in a traveling production touring provincial cities, with a company that always toured with dual productions of Luke and Matthew (in order to artificially stir up competition), who, in his first rehearsal, once famously stopped, right there on his mark, without throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, as the other nine lepers headed off stage, out the door, and across the street to put on their wise and foolish virgin costumes...

... as I say, this one actor stopped there on his mark, with one Leper’s Latex Long-sleeve™ still attached to his arm, while cries of raucous celebration were still audible in the wings on Stage Right... 

... it was this guy who stopped, looked out at the director, and asked, “Wait.  What’s my motivation here?”

You can understand that the director was not terribly interested in this rather ridiculous question, from a bit player, who would soon be running across the street to play either a wise or a foolish virgin, for all of about thirty seconds, depending on whether he happened to get a lamp with or without oil.  “You’re a leper who’s been healed!” cried the director.  “That’s your motivation!  Now start groveling with thanks!”

But the thespian was having a moment.  “Of course, I’ve been healed,” said the tenth leper.  “But isn’t there more to it than that?

“Isn’t this a conversion experience?” he began.  “Isn’t it an epiphany when this leper, who, since the day of his diagnosis, has assumed that his life would be lived thenceforth in shame, exiled from polite society, unable to make a living, estranged from his family, ignored by his friends, his confidence shaken to its core, his identity defined for ever by his malady?

“Was anything missing from the totality of his despair?  Did he not disgust himself whenever he looked in the mirror?  Did he not wonder if the leprous flesh he was wrapped in had permitted the disease to seep in through his pores?   From his toes to his nose he had learned to dislike every inch of his body.  And now, when he looked inside himself, in the long quiet hours when there was nobody to speak with, no company to be kept, and certainly no warm arms to be held in, he had learned to see himself as diseased from the inside out.

“Tush!  Did not the other nine lepers see themselves in precisely the same way?

“And is not this one leper’s response - this stranger from a strange land, this interloper, who is but a foreigner and an alien... does not his gratitude erupt from the instantaneous recognition that the good things of his past have been restored, and a whole, entire new life has now been given to him by Jesus?  Not only everything he’d lost - his family, his friends, his neighbors, his livelihood, and his home - but also a future that now lies before him again?!?  It’s like he knew that he would only ever see the sun set from now on, but all of a sudden, he is watching the sun rise again!

“Is there anything at all that is part of the tenth leper’s life that he cannot now see as a gift from God?  Is there any cell in his body that does not now rejoice?  Is there an ounce of his breath that is unprepared to exult?  Does he tingle?  Does he glow, does he now shine with reflected light from the hand and heart and voice of his maker and his redeemer?  What part of him has been unchanged by Christ’s gift?  Where is there darkness in him that has not been transformed to light by the command of the divine Son?  What path could he ever now tread, that would not seem to lead him on with signs of the Spirit’s wisdom?  Is he not fully, completely, entirely, and exhaustively possessed by an immeasurable gratitude that will not rest until it makes itself known?!

“And is he not shocked and appalled, rocked, even, to the depth of his being, to look to his left and to his right, to cast a glance over his shoulder, to gaze behind him, and to find that he is all alone, unaccompanied by his nine companions in such recent misery and isolation, now equally transformed, equally restored, equally re-endowed with gifts that they could rightly have guessed would be lost to them all for ever... but nowhere to be found?!?!

“He is but one in ten.  A fraction, a sliver, a slender portion of the miraculous blessing bestowed right there, on that unremarkable corner of the street.  One tenth of the rejoicing that might be heard; one tenth of the relief; one tenth of the gushing, wonderful goodness!  One bell in ten ringing its lonely peal!  One voice from a ten-part choir!  One tenth of the fanfare; one tenth of the effervescent bubbles.  But one of ten horses that might be harnessed to the savior’s coach.  One tenth of the yeast to leaven the bread; one tenth of the candles to brighten the night; one tenth of a troupe to dance in perfect synchronicity of praise.  And, oh, how glorious to be a trumpet, a candle, a bubble, a dancer, a voice to proclaim thanksgiving for such a gift!

“But to be only a tenth of what you might be!?  To accomplish, to dream, and to aim for only a tenth of what might otherwise lie ahead.  To sparkle as merely a tenth of the sky; to dive to only a tenth of the depth of the sea; and to sing with only a tenth of your voice!  How tiny, how small, how minute this one tenth, when so much has been given to so many!  How sad, how inadequate, how very pathetic to sing as a solo a song intended for a chorus, to march alone in a victory parade meant for an army, to dance alone in a number choreographed for a whole company!”

And with that, that actor dropped to Jesus’ feet, and looked up with wild hopefulness in his eyes, stared straight at the director, and announced, “That is my motivation!”

It was an unsettling moment in the theatre to hear this bit player hold forth in such grandiose terms on such a minor role.  But, nevertheless, everyone realized that, of course, the actor was correct in everything he had said.  They had simply never heard anyone make such a big deal of the tenth leper.  And it might be unsettling to us to discover that the story of Jesus healing the ten lepers may not be a healing miracle at all.  It might be unsettling to discover that it’s really a lesson in stewardship.

Tell a story about ten lepers who have been healed and you can get almost anyone to agree that a return of 10 percent in thanksgiving is less than perfect from those to whom everything has been given by God.  But when that 10 percent is credited to you or to me... well, then it’s a different story.  When we are asked to account for our own gratitude, well... Don’t we know that it’s unrealistic to expect people to tithe? ... to give 10% of what we have to God?

It’s the math of the story of the healing of the ten lepers that makes it clear that it’s not really a story about healing.  It’s really about what we give back to God, who gives us everything.  And it’s the fact that the math is just so easy to do! 

Because the point of the story is predicated on the realization that Jesus has given the lepers everything; he has given them their entire lives.  Nothing has been untouched, un-healed, un-restored, or un-perfected by him, and each and every one of the lepers was equally gifted, equally blessed, equally transformed.  We are meant to take note of how inadequate one-tenth seems as a response to God’s blessing, how incomplete it is, how much is still left over when all that’s returned to God is only one tenth of what was given by God’s hand.  Jesus wants us to see all of the motivation that the actor so eloquently described, and to chime in with his assessment that the results are so disappointing, so much less than they should be.  He wants it to be obvious that a return of ten percent is fairly paltry, considering the gift of life... and that that is precisely the gift we are considering.  And he wants us to be ready to see things as the tenth leper sees them, to share his wild hopefulness from our place at the Master’s feet, and to understand our motivation, perhaps for the first time.

And the burden for the preacher, in light of this understanding, is not to convince a congregation to tithe - to find a way to get to ten percent.  No!  The burden of the preacher, is to help the congregation see that everything we have has been a gift from God:  Every cell in our bodies, every ounce of our breath, every sunrise and sunset.  Every skill, every position, every note that comes from our voices.  Every sibling, and friend, every parent, and every passing acquaintance.  Every achievement of our past, every obstacle overcome, every challenge before us, and every victory we win.  Every moment of days gone by, and every hope for the future.  All of it comes from God.  The burden for the preacher, is not to spell out for you the precise algebra of your tithe, to help you decide whether it’s ten percent before or after taxes, to debate whether nine percent will do if the markets are down; it’s not even to make the case that you should probably give more to God than you pay for your gym, or your parking every month.

No, the burden of the preacher is to help you ask the question that that novice actor asked, standing there on his mark, the first time he played the tenth leper, before deciding that, indeed, he would throw himself at Jesus’ feet in an act of out-sized gratitude:

What is our motivation?  What do you or I have that hasn’t come to us from the hand of God?  What measure of thanksgiving could possibly be enough?

Answer those questions honestly, and all the rest will follow, and we will get up, and go on our way, for our faith will have made us well.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 October 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on October 13, 2019 .

Always Enough

Let’s go back, way back, in the story of our faith to that time right before the exodus from Egypt. Our ancestors in the faith, the Israelites, had been living in Egypt for some 400 years. Their numbers and prosperity had increased over the centuries since they fled a famine in their native land of Canaan, and all was well. Until there arose a new king over Egypt, as we are told in the Book of Exodus, and then things began to get bad and then worse and then insufferable for those Israelites who had previously enjoyed years of flourishing and fruitfulness.

The current Pharaoh was a cruel man, and in order to curtail the proliferation of the Israelites, he enslaved them, making their lives miserable with brutal stipulations and rigorous demands. Scripture again tells us that their lives were made “bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.”[1] Pharaoh’s objective appears to have been a sadistic desire to assign impossible tasks so that the Israelites would suffer.

As if the requirement of torturous labor were not enough, Pharaoh eventually decreed that the Israelites would no longer be given the necessary straw to produce their required quota of bricks. They would, instead, have to gather the straw themselves and still produce the mandated quantity. For Pharaoh, the ruthless tyrant, whatever the Israelites did was never enough. The goal of their labor could never be achieved. The impossibility of its adequacy was part of the abuse. Little wonder that the exodus from Egypt, directed by God and led by Moses, was such a welcome blessing.

Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was on an unimaginable scale of cruelty. Underlying it all was the fearful anxiety of a despotic ruler for whom nothing was ever sufficient. And tragically, such rulers still abound today as modern echoes of Pharaoh. But even though we may not literally be held in captivity in a foreign land where incessant demands for labor are judged as perpetually inadequate, in our day and age, in a culture that is supposedly free, isn’t there still some resonance for us in the story of the Israelites in Egypt? I dare say that we live, to some extent, in a metaphorical land of captivity. We can’t avoid the pressures of a taskmaster culture, where no matter what we do, it really is never sufficient. In bondage to a taskmaster culture, do we then transfer our anxiety to our life of discipleship?

Now, think of those disciples of Jesus whom we encounter in today’s Gospel. Is it possible that we, as followers of Christ, find ourselves in their position of wanting more faith? Like them, do we yearn for Jesus to increase our faith because we worry that ours is insufficient to fulfill the work to which God calls us, a work that seems endless?

Picking up in the Gospel narrative as we do today does little to shed light on just why the apostles are asking for more faith. But backing up in the Gospel, we find that Jesus’s disciples are no doubt feeling a bit overwhelmed by the demands of following him. Jesus cautions that anyone who causes another person to stumble in their faith would be better off having a millstone tied around his or her neck and thrown into the sea.

And what Jesus says about forgiving a brother or sister who sins seems unattainable. Even if that person sins seven times a day and repents seven times a day, he or she must be forgiven each and every time. It is hard work being a follower of Christ. It is tiresome. The expectations from God might seem unreasonable or as if God is asking for the impossible. How are we to measure up to Jesus’s standards of charity and good will? How are we to be as forgiving as Christ would have us be?

Which one of us has not, at some time or another or perhaps everyday, felt overwhelmed by the realities of being a disciple of Christ? Is it not natural to feel that the odds are considerably stacked against us in proclaiming the Gospel? We are all probably weary from hearing the statistics of what has been dubbed church decline. The truth is, it’s real, and it’s a legitimate source of anxiety for those of us who care deeply about the church, to the point that we, like Jesus’s disciples, want to cry out, “Lord, increase our faith!” And the implication of that plea, of course, is that we simply don’t have enough to accomplish all that God desires of us and to stem the tide of secularism.

There are plenty of people who are actively hostile towards the church and who are—often for good reasons—deeply suspicious of the church. Laboring in God’s vineyard can feel like an uphill battle, laden with concern about how to reach unchurched people with the good news. And it is tempting to exclaim, “Lord, increase our faith!” because if only we had a bit more, we might have a fighting chance of succeeding in our commitment to spread the Gospel.

The mission field is full of potential land mines against which our meager faith is so valiantly fighting. We are endlessly short-staffed in our efforts to preach peace and work for justice. Corrupt governments routinely squelch attempts at helping the suffering, poor, and oppressed. When yet another mass shooting has occurred in an American city, we seem to be incapable of finding ways to curb violence in this nation and elsewhere in the world. And on our very doorsteps, the number of people addicted to drugs and who have lost homes and who worry about their next meal only increases, exponentially it seems. If only our faith itself could expand exponentially to keep up. Like the disciples, we can understandably plead, “Lord, increase our faith!” Increase our faith so that we can make things better. That’s all we need. . . just a little more faith.

At the end of the day, the plight of Jesus’s disciples is ours, too, isn’t it? Our world is captive to sin, and we are captive to the anxiety that we are not up to the task of fighting against it. We desperately long to follow Christ, with all our heart and soul and mind, and yet we still stand helpless before insurmountable obstacles to faith. We appear to have been given a futile task. And so, we must measure up. We must produce the ever-increasing quantities of faith so that we can meet what God demands of us as Christ’s followers in the world. We are racing against the clock to turn out more and more bricks while having to gather the straw to make them as well.  And it’s tiresome. And it seems like a cruel assignment.

Except that in this way of seeing things, God is just another Pharaoh. If we succumb to this view that, in our lives of discipleship, what we do is never enough and that we are in an interminable battle against statistical trends and rampant secularization, then we have failed to grasp something absolutely essential about the nature of God. The God we worship and adore is the God who liberated the Israelites from Pharaoh, and this is the same God who has freed us from bondage to sin and death in the redeeming acts of Christ. God has and still is releasing us from the grip of fear and anxiety that what we do and who we are is never enough to serve him.

What if, instead, we came to see that what God has already given us is ample enough to bear fruit in the world? After all, even faith the size of a mustard seed can work wonders. It might be that our own fretful cry for an expansion of faith becomes not a request for more and a bit more and yet still more, but rather a trusting cry for God to open our eyes to see how we have already been adequately equipped by God for ministry, and to see that what we have been given is truly sufficient. It is enough.

Could it be that in the wondrous providence of such a liberating God the tiny mustard seeds of our labor in the mission field have the potential to bear enormous fruit by God’s gracious hand? Could it be that we are not being called to seek endless surpluses of faith but to place our confidence in a God who can work miracles with mustard seeds?

If we trust and are not ashamed of the testimony of Christ, then the church still does have something profoundly good to say to people who are frustrated with her and even hostile to her. A God who works wonders with mustard seed quantities can purge and transform sinful histories of the church in order to bring new things to pass. Such a God can surpass our understandings by prompting the seeds of great change in the small acts of ordinary kindness and good will of faithful disciples. Such a God can cleanse and empower a church, however broken and humbled by its stained past, into a means of healing for all who are suffering and for all who are in bondage to sin and death.

Far from being a domineering taskmaster, the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the loving One who is working with us and through us in our tasks of discipleship and who is on our side. We are not “worthless slaves” in our relationship with God but rather servants who serve him because we can do nothing else, and we should seek no reward for that service except rejoicing in what God is empowering us to do.

A trust that God can “purge this land of bitter things”[2] and make it sweet is far from foolish, no matter what some may say.  And so, even in a world subject to fear, and precisely in those situations where we doubt whether we have been endowed with enough or whether we are enough to measure up to what God’s kingdom needs, think of that little mustard seed. That tiny, minuscule, seemingly insignificant little mustard seed. Even faith the size of that small seed is sufficient. For the God who is on our side and who frees us from bondage, it is enough. It is always enough.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
6 October 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] Exodus 2:14
[2] from Hymn 596, The Hymnal 1982, “Judge eternal, throned in splendor” by Henry Scott Holland

Posted on October 6, 2019 .

Way Up In The Air

When the prophet Ezekiel received a vision of God, it began with four living creatures whose appearance  “had the form of men, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings...  and they sparkled like burnished bronze.  Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And... their wings touched one another; they went every one straight forward, without turning as they went... each had the face of a man in front; ...the face of a lion on the right side, ...the face of an ox on the left side, and... the face of an eagle at the back.  Such were their faces. 

“And their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies.  And each went straight forward; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went.  In the midst of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.  And the living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.” 

And Ezekiel “saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them.  As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of a chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel.  When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went.  The four wheels had rims and they had spokes; and their rims were full of eyes round about. 

“And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose.  Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.  When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ez 1:5-21)

For most of my life, my only real connection with the vision of Ezekiel was to sing about it: “Ezekiel saw the wheel, way up in the middle of the air, Ezekiel saw the wheel - wheel in a wheel - way in the middle of the air.”  Having sung that spiritual many times in my lifetime, the image of the “wheel” as part of the angelic apparatus has been firmly imprinted in my mind.  And it’s important, I think, that you keep the image of the angelic wheels in your minds, too, for a little while.

Shift now, to recently reported accounts of mysterious encounters that US Navy pilots have had as they flew their missions twenty and thirty thousand feet, way in the middle of the air.  According to the NY Times, “strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind, appeared almost daily from the summer of 2014 to March 2015, high in the skies.... Navy pilots reported to their superiors that the objects had no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes, but that they could reach 30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds.”*. Some of the encounters were clearly captured by radar, but not visible to the naked eye.  “The pilots said they speculated that the objects were part of some classified and extremely advanced drone program.”  And there exists footage “taken by a plane’s camera in early 2015 that shows an object zooming over the ocean waves as pilots question what they are watching.  ‘Wow, what is that, man?’ one exclaims. ‘Look at it fly!’”  Neither the pilots nor their superiors have supplied an explanation of these unusual encounters.  And no one has suggested that they might be angels - until now.

It ought to seem kooky to hear me suggest that the UFOs that Navy pilots can’t explain might just be angels.  And I suppose it is a little kooky.  But on this great feast, it’s my responsibility to think through the suggestion that angels are not merely a literary device or figments of our collective imagination; and that we should take seriously the possibility that angels exist within the great sphere of God’s creation, as the biblical witness more or less insists they do, and not just as ornaments in stained glass.

The collect for today reminds us that part of angels’ ministry is to “help and defend us here on earth.”  So I checked to see what was happening in the news from the summer of 2014 through the following winter.  I was wondering if I could detect some correlation of events that would plausibly suggest a surge in observable angelic activity.

Late in May 2014, there was a shooting near a college campus in Isla Vista, CA.

Early in June that year there was another campus shooting in Seattle, and then a few days later, a school shooting in neighboring Oregon.

Further afield, the Ebola outbreak had been begun ravaging West Africa by that summer.

In July, Eric Garner died at the hands of the NY Police Dept.

In mid-August Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.

That same month Robin Williams took his own life.

In September, ISIS militants released a video of one of their infamous and sickening beheadings - this one of the American-Israeli journalist Stephen Sotloff.

In October, the day after two Police officers were brutally attacked in New York City, there was another shooting in a school in Washington State.

Riots broke out in Ferguson, MO in November as the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing wore on.

In December, Bill Cosby’s name became mud, to put it mildly.

Later that month, NYC Police officers were attacked again, this time fatally.

As 2014 turned to 2015, gunmen opened fire at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January.

And in February, the shootings moved to Copenhagen, where two people were killed and five police officers wounded.

What a lot of death, and pain, and suffering.

If there were angels in the vicinity, what on earth were they doing?  Why didn’t they help and defend all these people in so much need?  What good were they to anyone?

We forget that the vision of the archangel Michael’s triumph over the Devil - “the deceiver of the whole world” - is a vision of victory to come, and not a report of a victory won.  In our own time Satan and his forces remain very much at work.  If you doubt me just think about the various epidemics of addiction that grip the world.  The ancient dragon will be thrown down by Michael and his angels, but for the moment the battle wages on.  It may be that the angels of God were just a little easier to spot during a period of painful losses in the battle between God’s goodness and the evil that threatens us all.

In the summer of 2014 Lt. Ryan Graves and Lt. Danny Accoin, flying F/A-18 Super Hornets, began noticing objects “after their 1980s-era radar was upgraded to a more advanced system.”  OK: weird.  “But then [other] pilots began seeing the objects. ‘I almost hit one of those things,’ [another] pilot told Lieutenant Graves.”

“The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube.”  

Like a sphere encasing a cube... a sphere encasing a cube.  It was this strange detail of a hard-to-believe phenomenon that put me in mind of the wheels of Ezekiel’s vision - a wheel in a wheel, with rims and spokes and eyes all around, accompanying creatures with four faces - all facing its own way - and moving with amazing maneuverability, and speed, way up in the middle of the air.

“And when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose.  Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.  When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

For the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

To be honest, preaching on angels is most often a matter of poetry, which is to say that a preacher expects to be granted a certain amount of license when talking about angels.  Because to talk about angels in any other way seems to flirt with nonsense.  It is often assumed, I think, that talk of angels is largely a matter of our projection of some need or hope, deep within ourselves, for a connection to a remote and unavailable God.  We may talk of angels without entirely believing that they exist.

But isn’t it possible that God has, in fact, appointed angels to come to our aid and succor, our help and defense?  Isn’t our need for God’s healing, reconciling, and resurrecting power more than just a poetic need?  Don’t we require more than just a bit of creative license to bear the sufferings we inflict on ourselves and one another?

God’s work is not just a matter of poetry and projection.  God’s work is real, as is his love for all his creatures, as is the aid and succor he gives us when we need it.  God is at work in the world.  Who knows how many angels he might have created to assist him in this work?

The New York Times was careful to include in its reporting the voice of a Harvard astrophysicist who points out that there could be lots of explanations for what the pilots think they saw.   I’m sure that’s true.

But one of the explanations is that there are wheels, way up in the middle of the air:  wheel in a wheel, way in the middle of the air.  And that those wheels are a part of the angelic apparatus.  (Who knows why?)  And that the angels of God move with astoundingly quiet speed.  And wherever the spirit goes, the wheels go too - way up in the middle of the air, way in the middle of the air.

And doesn’t it seem that the battle against the forces of evil has not yet come to an end.  And wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that St. Michael’s victory over those satanic forces is more than just a piece of lovely poetry to which we afford a certain license, because it sounds nice?  Would’t it be just the best thing if there really were angels flying to and fro with tremendous speed, sparkling like burnished bronze, and with four faces, and wings that touch each other.  And a wheel next to each angel, a wheel in a wheel, that goes up and down with the angel, and to and fro - way in the middle of the air.  And isn’t it easy to believe that to a Navy pilot all this might look something like a sphere encasing a cube as it rushed unexpectedly past, perhaps a bit exhausted by the battle?

Of course, an army of heavenly beings who will triumph over evil seems like too much to hope for.  But their Captain is the one who has already triumphed over death.  And I, for one, have decided that I am not ready to consign the angels to the category of poetic license.  I am ready to believe that angels are real.  I believe it is possible that Navy pilots may have encountered angels, who looked to them like a sphere encasing a cube, way up in the middle of the air!  And considering that the battle between good and evil clearly wages on, in fact, I’m counting on God supplying such a force of angels, way in the middle of the air!

And so to him who sits upon the throne be honor and glory, might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, from this time forth, and for evermore.  Amen.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

*All non-biblical quotations are from “Wow, What Is That?” Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects, by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, & Leslie Kean, in the NY Times, 26 May 2019

Posted on September 29, 2019 .